Dear Dr. Batya,
My nine-year-old daughter returned from her friend's house in tears after they were caught checking out "sex" on the Internet. How do you suggest I handle this?
My seven-year-old son watched a video in school about a boy who had experienced a terrorist attack. He repeated what the boy had said: 'I was on a bus, everything went dark, there was a huge bang, a smell of burning, I saw bodies lying all around me and people were dead.' My son was very upset and left the room. Should first-grade children be watching this?
Since earlier columns have addressed both how to talk to children about sex and coping with terrorism, I'd like to address these two moms' concerns regarding the media "exposure" the children received.
As parents you want to protect your children. Yet no matter how hard you work to try and shelter them, they are likely to inadvertently gain access to inappropriate information before they have the maturity to understand it.
While researching this column I Googled the word "sex" as the girls innocently did. Wow - nothing is sacred anymore. No shortage of close-up and personal photos and no difficulty in accessing way too much information.
Now imagine that you are the parent of the sweet innocent little boy who was shown videos of children discussing the horrific carnage after a terrorist attack. How would you respond? What do these scenarios teach us about how our own children feel good about themselves, respect others and value what you believe is important in life?
Here are a few thoughts: Give your children the tools they need to make informed decisions. As best as you can, try to monitor your children's actions. You can't be everywhere. Often you'll be forced to do damage control. With technology advancing so quickly, your children will have access to a variety of information and opportunities at an increasingly earlier age. It therefore behooves you, as early as possible, to give your children the tools they need to make informed decisions.
For young children this may mean teaching them to ask such simple questions as: "What will happen if I do this? What will happen if I don't? What would my mom or dad say if they were here now? Would they be happy, sad or angry with my choice? Do I feel uncomfortable about what I am going to do? Is what I am doing okay? If I am not sure, I can..."
Use these "negative events" as teaching opportunities. While you might deal differently with these issues than these parents, these situations nonetheless provide the opportunity to help your child understand realities and learn what is appropriate for them and why. Ask your kids what they think may have happened and what they know. This is an opportunity to hear how they may view their world and clear up any misperceptions. This is the time to let children know that no topics are off limits and you will be there to help them understand what they saw, as best as you can.
While you may be uncomfortable with some of these topics, and might like to just forget about it, this is your opportunity to help your children learn what you value, understand why and help them rewrite the script in a healthier way.
Children benefit from feeling safe. As parents, your job is to try to provide your child with a sense of security. While this material is readily available, many children are frightened by it. Your role as parent is one of education as well as reassurance that all is okay. As children feel good about themselves, it often becomes easier for them to make good personal decisions and reduce their own sense of fear or discomfort.
Children need access to age appropriate information that is straightforward and honest. Kids need to be able to ask questions, get answers and be heard on a level they can understand. While these two children stumbled upon information that was inappropriate, they still need information that can reduce their concerns and fears and satisfy their curiosity.
Set up child-led learning experiences. You and your child may have a very different set of expectations, so make sure that your agenda and his match. Make sure that you answer his questions. Some children are more interested than others about what is going on around them.
Be aware of information overload and check for signs of distress. Both children above were "traumatized" to some degree. Whether it was being caught and being disciplined for one child or hearing upsetting information for another, neither child could walk away from the situation. A child who is momentarily upset, but forgets quickly and moves on, differs from one who regresses, has difficulties in eating, sleeping, socialization, school, etc. for more than a day or two. If you feel your child is having difficulty, make sure he or she chats with a professional if you don't feel you can handle it.
Ask yourself if what you are saying is helpful. You want to teach your child your positive values, not transmit your own concerns, fears or anxieties. Deal with yours with a friend, partner or professional. There is nothing to be gained in sharing them with young children.
Teach children safe and responsible use of the Internet. While clearly the school should not have shown this video, this little boy showed amazing strength and courage to walk out of the room. Through discussion of what the media is all about, children can learn to question what is out there, and choose appropriate material. If a child would not feel comfortable having you watch with them, chances are they shouldn't be watching. While you may want your child to grow up without any bumps and bruises, think of it as making your kids more resilient. Enjoy even these moments while you can.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.